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Sunday, May 14, 2017

Tales from the Black List: The Voices (2014)

* *

Director: Marjane Satrapi
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Anna Kendrick, Gemma Arterton

It's a bad sign that the only time I truly felt engaged by The Voices was when the screen faded to black and the credits began, revealing Marjane Satrapi as its director. It was such a jolt that I actually said, "Really?" and second-guessed what I just saw. I remain confused at how Satrapi, whose autobiographical Persepolis so actively engages with the meaning and effect of patriarchy and misogyny, could be at the helm of a film about a guy who kills a bunch of women because he just can't seem to help himself, but seems to have nothing to actually say about the fact that this guy keeps killing women because he just can't seem to help himself. Maybe the script, which was written by Michael R. Perry and featured in the 2009 edition of the Black List, read better on the page. On screen it's weirdly flat and never musters up enough energy to succeed at the comedy half of the horror-comedy hybrid.

The Voices stars Ryan Reynolds as Jerry, a man with a history of mental health issues, one of which is that he hears voices. Although most of the people around him don't seem to know about his issues (at least until the third act, when someone brings it up because it's the most convenient way to move the plot to where it needs to be for the climax), Jerry's too eager and somewhat dim affect are enough to keep him largely isolated with his only real companionship coming in the form of his dog and cat, both of whom speak to him and function as the angel and devil on his shoulders, encouraging the best and worst in him, respectively (the cat, naturally, takes the role of the devil).

Because he looks like Ryan Reynolds, Jerry attracts the attention of Lisa (Anna Kendrick), a woman from the accounting department at the factory where he works who is willing to look beyond his strange affect to his chiseled face. However, because Jerry is so enthralled with Fiona (Gemma Arterton), a different woman from accounting, he doesn't notice that Lisa likes him and devotes his time to the pursuit of Fiona, who literally hides from him to avoid his attentions but gets a ride home with him when her car breaks down and leaves her stranded. This act of kindness from Jerry will end tragically, as something will happen during the course of the ride that will cause Fiona to freak out and flee, and Jerry to chase her through the woods before accidentally stabbing her with the hunting knife he's holding. In order to end the pain she's enduring, Jerry then stabs her a few more times to finish the job and though he feels really bad about it and believes he never wanted to hurt Fiona, when he gets home and explains things to the dog and cat, the cat wonders why he had the hunting knife with him in the first place, if it was never his intention to hurt Fiona.

The body count rises from there, with Jerry dismembering the corpses of his victims in his kitchen and storing the bits and pieces in tupperware containers - except for the heads, which he keeps in the fridge and occasionally converses with. Stylistically, Satrapi and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre use Jerry's decision not to take the medication prescribed by his psychiatrist (Jacki Weaver) as a point of entry into his mindset, showing the world as a bright, colorful, and surprisingly clean place when he's off meds, and as a place so dingy, drained of color and light, and messy (what with all the blood and viscera spread around Jerry's apartment) when he takes his meds that he freaks out and immediately stops taking them again because he doesn't want to see the world that way. If you reach hard enough you might be able to make a case that The Voices, which features a color scheme and production design (particularly the abandoned bowling alley where Jerry makes his home) that is somewhat reminiscent of the 1950s, is a commentary on the idea of "the good old days" and how that notion is inherently illusory, with that image happy post-war American prosperity merely masking the literal and institutional violence that beset people who didn't fit into that white, middle class, heterosexual category. To not see the social problems of that era is tantamount to Jerry's decision not to take his pills; he doesn't want to see the ugliness, he wants to keep living in the nice happy place where everything is okay. I don't think that ultimately holds up - it might have if the film had more than just a minor character played by a person of color - but I can see pieces of that idea scattered throughout.

Ultimately, I don't think The Voices is saying much of anything at all. It's certainly not saying anything about misogyny given that it's about a guy who kills several women and whose culpability is tacitly explained away by the trauma of his childhood and his ongoing mental health struggles, and who isn't really punished for anything but instead gets to control his own destiny and arguably receives a reward (of sorts) in the end. A movie doesn't necessarily have to say anything, of course (though a film with this premise would seem to have an easy opportunity to do so), and can instead just be simple entertainment but there, too, The Voices falls short. It's a dark comedy, but it's never really very funny and it moves at such a sluggish pace that even the jokes that do work land in a rather subdued fashion. All in all, a movie which prominently features a cat that talks in a Scottish brogue should be a lot more interesting than this turns out to be.

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